The First Century of Chemical Engineering

MIT Industrial Chemical Lab

The Industrial Chemical Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1893.

By the end of the 19th century, competition among Great Britain, Germany, and the United States for industrial chemicals had become rather fierce, and chemical engineering expertise was in high demand. The first course in chemical engineering was offered by an unknown industrial prospector from Manchester, England, named George E. Davis, who decided to transfer his vast knowledge from years of inspecting chemical plants in the industrial regions of England to the classroom. In fall 1887 he gave a series of 12 lectures that were later published in Chemical Trade Journal. The next year Lewis M. Norton (1855–1893) of the chemistry department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offered a new course in chemical engineering. The course material was taken predominantly from Norton’s notes on industrial practice in Germany, which at that time had probably the most advanced chemical process industry in the world.

When Norton died in 1893, Frank H. Thorpe (1864– 1932), an MIT graduate who had earned a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg that same year, took responsibility for Norton’s course. Five years later he published what may be considered the first textbook on chemical engineering, entitled Outlines of Industrial Chemistry. This textbook made mention of the chemical treatment of biological by-products, a very faint indication of early biotechnology processes.

Although Norton and Thorpe pioneered the teaching of chemical engineering in the United States, it was Arthur A. Noyes (1866–1936) and later William H. Walker (1869–1934) who helped bring to the discipline the respect it would eventually enjoy within the engineering curriculum. Noyes established the Research Laboratory of Physical Chemistry at MIT in 1903 before making his mark in 1913 by transforming what was then Throop College into the California Institute of Technology. Walker, who had received his doctorate in 1892 at the University of Göttingen with future Nobel laureate Otto Wallach, was hired as an instructor at MIT in 1902. Under Walker’s leadership, MIT’s Division of Applied Chemistry (as it was then known) flourished, and the establishment of its Research Laboratory of Applied Chemistry followed in 1908. In his institution-building work Walker was assisted by Warren K. Lewis (1882–1975), for whom the prestigious AIChE teaching and education award is named. He left a deep impact not only through his series of industrial consultancies and attempts at profession building, but also through his emphasis on practical teaching.

In England, during the same period, Davis proceeded with the publication of his Handbook of Chemical Engineering (1901), which was revised and published in a second edition of over 1,000 pages in 1904. Davis’s textbook was particularly important because it introduced the notion of “unit operations,” although the term itself would not be coined until 1915 by Arthur D. Little at MIT. As developed by the two men, “unit operations” referred to the idea that all chemical processes can be analyzed by dividing them into distinct operations, such as distillation, extraction, filtration, and crystallization, all of which are governed by certain principles. More than anything, however, Davis was responsible for coining the term chemical engineering to describe this new engineering area that addressed problems of the chemical industry.

In the United States, MIT is considered the first university to have offered, in 1888, a four-year curriculum in chemical engineering, in 1888. Other universities soon followed MIT’s example: the University of Pennsylvania (1894), Tulane University (1894), the University of Michigan (1898), and Tufts University (1898). Each of these four-year programs in chemical engineering were housed within the chemistry department.

The Institution of a Profession

In this climate of international competition and academic excitement the young field of chemical engineering found the right ground to thrive in. In 1903 a specialized publication appeared. The Chemical Engineer was not exactly a scientific journal, but it included practical articles written by practicing industrial chemists and engineers, including William Walker. By 1905 this magazine had a circulation of more than 1,600, including about 570 chemical engineers.

By 1904 tensions were bubbling up among members at American Chemical Society (ACS) meetings about the relationship between chemistry and chemical engineering. At that year’s meeting Hugo Schweitzer, a prominent New York industrial chemist, declared himself "absolutely against the introduction of chemical engineering in the education of chemists. ”In the same meeting M. T. Bogert agreed with Schweitzer, saying that progress in “technical chemistry” was best achieved in research laboratories by researchers without engineering training. But the engineers found a defender in Milton C. Whitaker, a professor of chemistry at Columbia University, who argued that a chemist was “generally not the man who is capable of transmitting from a laboratory to a factory the ideas which he has developed ”because he lacks education “in the engineering branches.”